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A 17 year old female is a girl, not a woman

Posted by plosmedicine on 30 Mar 2009 at 23:38 GMT

Author: David Glass
Position: Vice President/Scientist
Institution: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals
Submitted Date: December 09, 2004
Published Date: December 10, 2004
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

I could not get past the title of the article by Lynn and Lightman, "Fever, Headache, and Visual Blurring in a 17-Year-Old Woman," since my understanding of the word "woman" was that it refers to an adult. A quick consultation of the dictionary ( confirmed that impression; "woman" is defined as an "adult" female - and an"adult"  is defined as someone who has reached "maturity or legal age". There's a second, more biological definition of "adult": "A fully grown, mature organism." That is a more difficult definition to pin to a particular age group; some females may reach sexual maturity and full growth in their mid-teens; few would call them "women."

The reason it is important for a medical journal to maintain the distinction between women and girls is that the two classes are treated differently. Feminists twenty and thirty years ago made a point of criticizing the term "girl" when applied to mature women since the term infantilized adults, and created a semantic environment which helped justify men treating women as inferiors. Conversely, applying the term "woman" to a child inappropriately puts the child on a par with adults, and makes them "fair game" to adult men (or women). That's a problem.

I suggest, given the history of the struggle to recognize adult females as "women", the more legalistic definition of the term should govern - females under the age of 18 should be referred to as "girls"; those of legal age should be "women". If it is too difficult to determine which label should be used, the status-neutral term "female," coupled with the individual's age, is always appropriate, perhaps even more appropriate than the less exact terms "woman" or "girl," in a medical context.

No competing interests declared.